From the moment the first Ty Cobb baseball card — maybe the 1906 Sporting Life issue? — was issued, fans could count on their cardboard treasures to give them an accurate picture of the man.
Just look at that steely gaze on Cobb’s 1914 Cracker Jack card or the challenging, choked-up stance on his T3 Turkey Red issue. He looks as if he’s ready to club any ball, or man, who comes his way into submission.
And that seems to be a fitting depiction of the player who is often described as one of the most fiery competitors the game has ever known and likely one of its nastiest characters, as well.
After all, when Cobb retired in 1928 at the age of 41, he held the all-time records for hits (4191), runs (2244), stolen bases (897), and batting average (.366), among others. By all accounts, he climbed those statistical mountains on the back of his enormous talent and a complete lack of compunction when it came to driving spikes deep into the legs of defending second basemen or punching out opponents whom he might perceive as impediments.
Apparently, Cobb was not above engaging in fisticuffs off the field, either, even if his sparring partners were not always as physically capable as the legend himself.
So, through a litany of pasteboards issued during the first quarter of the 20th Century by tobacco companies, candy makers, and other vendors lucky enough to capture his likeness on cardboard, Cobb’s fierceness and competitive nature shone through on his cards, threatening to burn them to ashes.
And, much like the stars of recent generations, the cardboard love did not cease when Cobb retired.
Indeed, old Tyrus Raymond Cobb was one of the marquee names when US Caramel rolled out their 32-card set of sporting legends in 1932 (although the set is often referred to as a 1933 issue). Along with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmy Foxx, Cobb headlined a checklist that featured 27 baseball players and a handful of standouts from other sports.
But, while card #16 of Fred (Lindy) Lindstrom is famous for being one of the most rare and valuable in the hobby, the image of Cobb is perhaps the most interesting in the set.
Gone are the intimidating full-body shots topped off by a direct stare daring you to take one more step toward him. Missing is the air of danger that accompanies just about every card released during Cobb’s career.
Issued four years after his retirement, the US Caramel card shows a mid-40s Cobb who appears decidedly human. His once thin and athletic shoulders seem to be thicker, almost soft. His gaze is offered through squinting (maybe myopic?) eyes, and is cast off to the side. Even Cobb’s face is doughy, hinting at a decent amount of body-weight gain.
It’s Cobb’s non-descript white uniform that really stands out, though, and especially the bulbous hat perched over his prominent ears
Is Cobb an early inspiration for Elmer Fudd?
Has he just finished his shift as a baker at the local pastry shop?
Or has Tyrus changed his rabble-rousing ways and turned to the cloth, intent on making a run at the Papacy?
In the end, it hardly matters, because any Cobb card is a desirable gem for collectors, and that US Caramel #14 can fetch several thousand dollars depending on condition.
Maybe, though, just maybe, a small dollop of that premium is due to the enduring human riddle that Cobb represents, and his un-Cobbly appearance on this forgotten hobby classic.